When the Land Speaks: The Legacy of Historic Rural Hill

A historic research paper

When the Land Speaks

Academic: Historical Research

 What’s it like to travel back in time?  Hundreds of explorers flock to Historic Rural Hill each year in search of the answers to this question.  What they leave with is arguably personal, and profound, and unique to the land.

            Once the homestead of one of Mecklenburg County’s most influential founding families, Historic Rural Hill now exists to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of the Davidsons, who not only developed the idyllic property, but also the community around them.  Generations of Davidson family influence live on in the landscape, infrastructure, and history books of America’s old South, and to walk the property today is to explore that vast and fantastical space between modernity and history, industry and nature unscathed—essentially, to become a time traveller. 

            There is no time machine at Historic Rural Hill (although some locals claim the resident ghosts defy time altogether).  What Historic Rural Hill does have is a winning formula for transforming a family heritage into a dynamic, living history: a rich past, a capable and enthusiastic staff, an invested team of volunteers, and patronage from the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department. Although many original elements of the Rural Hill property are either modified, reimagined, or nonexistent today, the ongoing efforts of Mecklenburg County and the Davidson family trust to preserve this relic of the old South have produced a thriving farm, cultural center, nature preserve, and educational complex that speaks for the strivings of all those immigrants, farmers, slaves, and soldiers who helped shape not only Mecklenburg County, but the United States of America as we know it today.

 

Major John and Family

            The son of immigrant Scots, John Davidson arrived in the backcountry of North Carolina with his widowed mother, Isabella, and younger sister, Mary, when he was sixteen.  The year was 1752 and the American colonists had yet to declare their independence from foreign rule.  During this period of transition and political unrest, industrious men had many opportunities to grow their wealth and make their mark on American history.  John Davidson possessed an aptitude for both.

            Apprenticed as a blacksmith in his early teenaged years (Williams, 2012), John established himself as a businessman early on, and bought his first 300 acres at the age of 23 from the man who would go on to become his father-in-law (Anson County, 1779-1746).  John Married Violet Wilson, daughter of farmer and landowner Samuel Wilson, who is speculated to have died “the richest man in Mecklenburg County or perhaps in the entire back country” (Williams, 2012).  This proved to be an advantageous union in more ways than one.

Acquisition and Development of Rural Hill

            Major John bought the 250 acres that, along with subsequent land acquisitions, would become Historic Rural Hill from his father-in-law for £45 (Williams, 2012), a sum that today equates to approximately $3,800USD.  He and Violet sold the Anson County property in 1765 for over a 200 percent profit (Williams, 2012) and moved their small family into the log cabin they’d built on the Rural Hill property, which they named “Rural Retreat” (Davidson, 1943). 

            As their family expanded, the Davidsons expanded their property, eventually moving out of Rural Retreat and into a mansion they christened “Rural Hill” (Davidson, C. G., 1943).  A 1790 federal census indicates that they owned 26 slaves at the time (U. S. Census, 1970).  Family tradition has it that John Davidson labored alongside his slaves, and personally taught them all the intricacies of farming and running a plantation (Gregory, C. B., 2011).

            After John Davidson’s death in 1832, Rural Hill was passed down through five more generations of Davidson family ownership.  The Rural Hill mansion burned to the ground in 1886 and the Rural Retreat log cabin burned down just eight years later, after which a separate kitchen on the property was expanded and transitioned into a residence (Wilson, 2012).  This two-story modified kitchen, which has no formal name, is the only original Rural Hill structure still standing on the property.  In 1992, siblings John Springs, May, and Elizabeth Davidson sold what remained of Rural Hill to Mecklenburg County for $1.2 million.  Additionally, they donated $40,000 “for renovations” (Smith, 1992).  By that time, Rural Hill had survived over 250 years of Davidson family ownership.  In 1987, it was officially designated a Mecklenburg County historic property (Mecklenburg County, 1987).

 

The Davidsons in History

            Over the course of his lifetime, John Davidson acquired “several thousand acres” of land (Signers’ biographies,” 2004) and fathered ten children, all of whom grew into adulthood—a rarity at the time—and many of whom “rose in prominence and prosperity” (Williams, 2012).  He also served two terms in the North Carolina Colonial Assembly, joined the militia during the Revolutionary War, rising to the rank of major, and pioneered both iron manufacturing and cotton cultivation in the South (Davidson, 1943).  John Davidson, his descendants, and even the Rural Hill property itself, share in the vibrant history of Mecklenburg.

            Mecklenburg Declaration.  On May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg County became the first government body in all of America to proclaim its independence when John Davidson, along with 26 other community leaders, drafted and signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (Williams, 2008).  The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence outlined five resolutions asserting the “inherent and inalienable rights of man” and rebuking the power of the Crown of Great Britain to hold any “rights, privileges, immunities, or authority therein” (“The Mecklenburg Declaration,” 1831).  While there is some controversy over the wording of the original document, much evidence exists to validate historians’ claims that the spirit and verbiage of the Mecklenburg Declaration inspired the American Declaration of Independence, which was enacted over a year later (Graham, 1905).

            Battle at Cowan’s Ford.  In 1781, Rural Retreat played an important role in the Revolutionary War.  Directly following the famed Battle of Cowpens, General William Lee Davidson was called to intercept Lord Cornwallis as he pursued American militia.  The Salisbury militia, under General Davidson’s lead, camped out in Rural Retreat until it was time to strike.  Although General Davidson was fatally wounded during the Battle at Cowan’s Ford, the battle was instrumental to the British Army’s surrender (Gregory, 2011).

            Davidson College.  In 1836, Mr. William Lee Davidson sold 486 acres to the Concord Presbytery.  It was on this property that Davidson College was built.  The college was named after Mr. Davidson’s father, Revolutionary War hero General Davidson, who died in the Battle at Cowan’s Ford (“College History Timeline,” 2014).

 

256 Acres

            The Rural Hill people visit today is just a remnant of what was once a much larger plantation property.  Still, at 265.3 acres, it is comparatively large for a Mecklenburg-area rural historic site (Williams, 2012).  True to history, much of the 256 acres is cleared, while only a small portion of the cleared land is farmed.  The expanse and layout of Rural Hill provides for the myriad events, structures, and educational experiences the property is home and host to, and in order to fully understand the multifaceted history that Rural Hill represents, it is necessary to consider all of its parts.

          Rural Retreat.  Although the original Rural Retreat burned to the ground at the end of the 19th century, a replication in its place serves to not only offer a glimpse into how Major John and his family lived during their first years at Rural Hill, but also what life was like in that time period.

            Holly Bend.  In 1795, John Davidson gifted 430 acres of Rural Hill land, abutting the Catawba River, to his son Robert “for love and affection” (Wilson, 2012).  Named Holly Bend for its location amidst a grove of holly trees, this property, which was once a thriving plantation with at least 109 slaves (Ashe, 1907), still stands today.  The location and architecture of Holly Bend make it a necessary adjunct to any examination of Rural Hill and its place in American history.  It is currently owned by the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department, and is under plans for a complete renovation (Gregory, 2011).

            1940’s Era Farmhouse.  This is the original kitchen that transitioned to a family home after both Rural Hill and Rural Retreat burned down.  It currently serves as office space for Davidson family archives, a genealogical research library, and an exhibition site (Gregory, 2011).  Visitors to Rural Hill can tour the farmhouse, which houses an extensive collection of Scottish memorabilia.

            Rural Hill Burial Ground.  Maintained through the Davidson Family Trust, this cemetery is the final resting place of Major John Davidson, his wife, Violet Davidson, and generations of their descendants.  In it can be found gravestones with notable markings—circles for “eternal life,” roses for “prime of life,” and eagles for bravery and military service, for example—as well as a wall erected in 1923 “in memory of John Davidson, a Signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence” (Historic Charlote, n.d.).  In 2004, each grave marker was documented and researched through a preservation project funded by a grant from the History Channel, and visitors to Rural Hill are welcomed to view the findings and take a tour of the burial ground (Gregory, C. B., 2011).

            Rural Hill Plantation Stone Columns.   These stone front porch columns are all that still stands of the original Rural Hill plantation home of John and Violet Davidson (Gregory, 2011).  Restored after the sale of Rural Hill to Mecklenburg County, the columns are significant to any study of the Rural Hill plantation context.

            Behesda Schoolhouse.  In 2005, Rural Hill adopted a new (old) structure: the last remaining one-room all-black schoolhouse in Mecklenburg County was moved from its location in Eastern Huntersville to the Rural Hill property (Gregory, 2011).  Dating back to the early 1800’s, the Bethesda schoolhouse is an example of life before integration.  While awaiting grant money to fund restoration of the structure, Rural Hill is drafting plans for an educational tour of the schoolhouse that will illuminate for students the realities of segregation (Beshears, 2005).

 

            Today, Historic Rural Hill serves as both an educational complex and a commemorative site.  The numerous educational programs offered to visiting schools derive from Rural Hill’s expansive landscape, slave and farm records, farming tool and implement artifacts, and farm journals (Williams, 2012), and encompass such themes as “Light and Heat in the 18th Century” and “Firecakes at Rural Hill: Cooking in the Backwoods” (Educational programming, n.d.).  To fund its ongoing preservation and educational efforts, Historic Rural Hill hosts a number of capital-raising events.  These include the “Amazing Maize Maze,” the “First Footin’” walk and trail run, the Loch Norman Highland Games, the Rural Hill Scottish Festival, the North Carolina Music and Brewers Festival, the Warrior Dash, the Rural Hill Sheepdog Trials and Dog Fesival, numerous food truck rallies, and Civil War reenactments, among others.  History enthusiasts can head to Rural Hill for any or all of these activities in order to experience life in a differen titme, and from a different perspective, from Historic Rural Hill truly is, as its motto claims, “where history springs alive.”

 

References

Anson County, North Carolina.  (1749-1776).  Anson County deed abstracts, 1749-1766, abstracts of wills & estates, 1749-1795. Retrieved from http://interactive.ancestry.com

Ashe, S. A. (1907). Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial Times to       the Present. Greensboro, North Carolina: Charles L. Van Noppen.

Beschears, E. (2005, October 2). Schoolhouse finds a new home on farm—Black children attended school in 100-year-old, 1-room building. The Charlotte Observer, p. 5L.

College History Timeline. (2014). Retrieved from http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/college-history-timeline

Davidson, C. G.  (1943).  Major John Davidson of Mecklenburg County, N. C., pioneer, industrialist, planter.  Charlotte, NC: The Lassiter Press.

Educational programming. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ruralhill.net/Educational.asp

Graham, C. G. (1905). The Mecklenburg declaration of independence, May 20, 1775, and the lives of its signers. Los Angeles, CA: University of California.

Gregory, C. B. (2011, February 10). Historic Rural Hill master plan update. Charlotte, NC: Gregory Park Consulting.

Historic Charlotte, Inc. (n.d.) Historic Charlotte walking tour series: Rural Hill burial grounds walking tour brochure [brochure]. Charlotte, NC: Historic Charlotte.

Mecklenburg County. North Carolina. (1987, December 30). An ordinance designating the property known as “the Rural Hill plantation” (the exterior of all improvements, the interior of all improvmeents, and the entire 221.04 acres comprising the plantation) as   historic property, said property being located on both sides of Neck Road in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and recorded on tax parcel numbers 013-042-18,    013-042-19, 013-042-20, 013-181-01, and 013-181-02 in the Mecklenburg County tax office. Mecklenburg County, NC: Register of Deeds.

Mecklenburg County, the—declaration text. (1831). Declaration of independence by the citizens of Mecklenburg County [pamphlet published by Governor Montford Stokes]. Retrieved from http://www.meckdec.org/declaration/the-text

Signers’ biographies & signatures. (2004). Retrieved from http://www.cmstory.org/meckdec/bios.asp?id=16

Smith, G. (1992, January 5). Historic Rural Hill plantation now belongs to county. The Charlotte Observer, p. 10. U. S. Census Bureau. (1790). 1790 United States federal census: Mecklenburg, NC [database online]. Retrieved from ancestry.com

Williams, J. H. (2008, June 10). The Mecklenburg Declaration—history. Retrieved from http://www.meckdec.org/declaration

Williams, J. H., & Williams, A.  (2012).  The Davidsons of Rural Hill: The first three generations.  Retrieved from http://ruralhill.net/pdf/TheDavidsonsofRuralHill.pdf